The Supreme Court said that the convicts in the cases of multiple murders could be awarded multiple life sentence but these could not be ordered to run consecutively as life sentence means life in jail for the rest of the convict’s life.
“We hold that while multiple sentences for imprisonment for life can be awarded for multiple murders or other offences punishable with imprisonment for life, the life sentences so awarded cannot be directed to run consecutively,” said a constitution bench headed by Chief Justice T.S.Thakur.
Such multiple sentences, the bench also comprising Justice Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, Justice A.K. Sikri, Justice S.A.Bobde and Justice R. Banumathi said would however, be superimposed over each other so that any remission or commutation granted by the competent authority in one does not result in remission of the sentence awarded to the prisoner for the other.
The court said this while answering in negative a reference by a three judge bench the question: “Whether consecutive life sentences can be awarded to a convict on being found guilty of a series of murders for which he has been tried in a single trial?”
Referring to several earlier decisions of the top court, the constitution bench said that the legal position is well settled that life imprisonment is for the rest of life of the offender, unless it was commuted or remitted by the government.
“Any direction that requires the offender to undergo imprisonment for life twice over would be anomalous and irrational for it will disregard the fact that humans like all other living beings have but one life to live.”
Having dealt with this issue, the bench addressing the question “whether court can direct life sentence and term sentences to run consecutively” said that the power of the Court to direct the “order in which sentences will run is unquestionable” in view of the Section 31 of the Cr.P.C.
“The Court can, legitimately direct that the prisoner shall first undergo the term sentence (for lesser offences) before the commencement of his life sentence,” it said pointing out that such a direction shall be “perfectly legitimate and in tune with Section 31” of the Cr.P.C.
However, the converse, the bench said, “may not be true for if the Court directs the life sentence to start first it would necessarily imply that the term sentence would run concurrently”.
That is because once the prisoner spends his life in jail, there is no question of his undergoing any further sentence, the court said making the position further clear.
The question referred by the three judge bench for consideration by five judge bench was rooted in an order of a trial court in Tamil Nadu by which it had convicted Muthuramalingam and others for committing several murders in one incident.
Upon conviction, the trial court directed them to undergo varying including a sentence of imprisonment for life for each one of the murders committed by them.
The important aspect of the sentencing was that the convicts had to undergo consecutive life sentences ranging between two to eight such sentences depending upon the number of murder each of them had committed.
The trial court order directing the convicts to undergo the life sentences for each of the murder committed by them consecutively was upheld by the High Court.
Having answered the reference in negative, the bench said that in the light of its pronouncement, a regular bench would now decide the plea by the Muthuramalingam and others.
“The Regular Bench hearing the appeals (by Muthuramalingam and others) would be free to deal with that aspect of the matter having regard to what we have said in the foregoing paragraphs,” it said.